An estimated 500 Northwestern University students turned out at a meeting at Norris University Center’s McCormick Auditorium on Jan. 25 to learn about and/or oppose what had been reported in the Daily Northwestern newspaper as a decision by the City to step up enforcement of an ordinance that limits the number of unrelated persons who live in a housing unit to three persons.

The City’s code provides that no dwelling unit (i.e., single family home, apartment unit, etc.) shall be occupied by more than three unrelated persons living together, unless the landlord has a valid lodging establishment license.

On Jan. 26, after meetings that involved the City’s elected and other officials and Northwestern University administrators, the City issued a statement saying, “The City has no plan to change its enforcement strategy today or in the future. There has been discussion in the press that on July 1, 2011, the City will change this strategy. This statement is incorrect.”

While saying that it has no plan to change its enforcement policy, the City’s statement also says, “The City has enforced these laws regularly through the years and will continue to do so to protect the safety of occupants and neighborhood residents. The City’s enforcement strategy to ensure community safety does not include the eviction of occupants.”

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl summed it up in an e-mail to the RoundTable, “We are enforcing the three-unrelated law, have enforced it and will continue to enforce it.
There are no plans to change our enforcement of the law and never were any plans to change our enforcement of the law.”

The City has received an increasing number of complaints that too many people are living in a single residential unit and that properties have been illegally altered in violation of the City’s code. “This is most prevalent in some of the City’s neighborhoods used heavily by college students for off-campus housing, such as 173 recorded complaints in 2010 in the blocks east of Ridge Avenue between Noyes and Emerson Streets,” said the City in its prepared statement.

Ald. Jane Grover, whose 7th Ward includes off-campus student housing, told the RoundTable the City is not targeting NU students. She said there were a number of multi-unit housing buildings where there were significant violations in the off-campus student housing area, but the City did not want to enforce the ordinance and reduce the number of occupants in those buildings while students were still in school. This was an effort by the City to accommodate the students’ needs, she said.

She added that the City works together with NU concerning off-campus housing and those City officials and NU administrators meet regularly to discuss these and other issues.

On Jan. 26, Burwell Howard, NU Dean of Students, wrote a letter to students saying that NU appreciated the responsiveness of Evanston officials to the concerns raised by Northwestern students and administrators about the three unrelated persons rule. He added, though, “The University will oppose any efforts that target our students selectively using this ordinance.”

Acknowledging neighbor concerns, he said, “We understand that the City was responding to complaints from other Evanston residents living near campus about issues related to noise, trash and unruly behavior and, in an effort to curtail such activities, would attempt to reduce the density of population in the neighborhood. We recognize the concerns of neighbors, and the University has taken numerous steps to address those issues and will continue to do so.”

Mr. Howard said a medium- term solution is “more modern student housing on campus or in the area immediately adjacent to campus.” He added, “We hope to offer upper-class undergraduates apartment-style housing in a convenient location.”

Claire Lew, president of the Associated Student Government (ASG) at NU, told the RoundTable that 4,200 students had signed a petition opposing enforcement of the three-unrelated-person ordinance and asking the City to amend it “to reflect contemporary student needs and circumstances.”

Ms. Lew said students’ biggest concern now is what the City’s current enforcement policy entails, in other words “what current enforcement means.” She said ASG will ask City officials to attend a student senate meeting to answer students’ questions about the ordinance and the City’s enforcement policy and that ASG will ask the City to amend the ordinance.

At the Jan. 31 City Council meeting, Ms. Lew told Council members that she wanted to work with the City and with residents and is looking forward to meeting with City officials.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...